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The Other Brazilian Rainforest: Why Restoring the Atlantic Forest Can Help Tackle Climate Change

By Miguel Calmon, Mariana Oliveira and Rachel Biderman

This article was originally published here on WRI Insights on 14 August 2019.

Everyone knows how important the Amazon rainforest is. The region is often in the international news, sometimes because of its diverse species, but most of the time because of deforestation and fires. However, the Amazon is not the only forest in Brazil, nor the only one worth protecting.

Maybe you have never heard about the Atlantic rainforest, but you have likely seen this forest in pictures or movies. It’s the landscape in Brazil’s most famous image, the one of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

The forest follows the Atlantic coastline from the easternmost part of Brazil to the southern border and beyond, into Paraguay. It encompasses some of the largest cities in Brazil, such as São Paulo and Rio, and is home to more than 145 million people.

Its biodiversity is as impressive as the Amazon’s. Sadly, Brazil’s other rainforest is already very degraded. While the Amazon has lost 19% of its original tree cover, the Atlantic Forest has lost more than 80%, beginning when the first Europeans arrived in South America.

After hundreds of years of deforestation and predatory exploration for natural resources, it is time for the Atlantic Forest to be recognized as the important ecosystem it is. And that is exactly what new research shows: the Atlantic Forest provides one of the most important opportunities for landscape restoration in the world. Restoring the degraded land with native plants would combat climate change, safeguard exceptional biodiversity and boost Brazil’s rural economy.

A Potential Carbon Sink

Recent research has shown that the Atlantic Forest is perfectly suited for the restoration movement. A study published last July in the journal Science Advancesidentified priority areas for conservation and restoration in tropical forests around the world. The study looked for areas with the most cost-efficient restoration opportunities: lands with higher potential socioeconomic benefits (including biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and water security) and with higher restoration feasibility (including restoration costs and the probability that a restored area will persist over time without suffering deforestation).

The results show that Brazil, Indonesia, India, Madagascar and Colombia have the largest areas with cost-efficient opportunities to restore land. Brazil’s Atlantic Forest has a potential restoration area of almost 40 million hectares (99 million acres), roughly the same land area as Norway.

A separate study published in Science shows that restoring these forests can be a very effective tool to tackle climate change. Trees take carbon from the air during photosynthesis, and this carbon stays stored in the tree. The study mapped an area of 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) that could be restored worldwide, equivalent to the size of China. The authors estimated that this could result in ecosystems storing 205 billion metric tonnes (226 billion U.S. tons) of carbon, four times the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the world.

Brazil can play a significant role in this effort by avoiding deforestation in the Amazon, but also by restoring the lesser-known Atlantic Forest.

An area of the Atlantic Forest restored with native trees to improve biodiversity and produce sustainable timber. Photo by Symbiosis.

Green Jobs and a New Restoration Economy

Restoring the Atlantic Forest would help the planet as a whole by curbing emissions, and it would also improve the well-being of Brazilians in particular. The forest’s restoration would benefit cities like São Paulo and Rio by providing “natural infrastructure.” For example, restoring forests can ensure cleaner water, by reducing soil erosion and avoiding sediment pollution in water reservoirs.

Just as important are the positive effects this healthy landscape could have for the economy. Since the Atlantic Forest was severely cleared over centuries, today there is plenty of degraded land to be restored—including abandoned land that would not compete with agriculture and food production.

This land can be restored for ecological benefits, such as protecting wildlife and improving the soil, but also for economic purposes depending on the region. Farmers could invest in agroforestry, a system that mixes sustainable farming with forest cover, producing food and storing carbon at the same time. Or they could invest in sustainable forestry, planting native trees that will improve biodiversity, soil and water, while also producing high-value timber. With these models, restoration would generate new green jobs in rural areas, stimulating a new economy of planting trees for fruits, nuts and legal, well-managed timber. This legal timber would ease pressure on old-growth, primary forests (including reducing illegal logging in the Amazon).

The Atlantic Forest has an estimated 20,000 plant species, more than the whole of the North American continent (17,000 species) or Europe (12,500). It is home to iconic species, such as the golden lion tamarin, and the pau-brasil tree that gives Brazil its name. Restoring areas of healthy forest for these species will protect uniquely rich biodiversity, and preserve an important piece of Brazilians’ cultural heritage.

Restoration in Practice

If the theory for restoring the Atlantic Forest is solid, so is the practice. Another recent study shows that restoration in the Atlantic Forest is already in process, and forecasts a restored area of 1.4 million hectares (3.4 million acres—roughly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut) by 2020.

Companies, rural producers, researchers and civil society organizations have formed the Pacto para a Restauração da Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact), of which WRI Brasil is a member. The alliance submitted restoration commitments to the Bonn Challenge, an international effort to restore degraded land around the world. Pacto is actively working to include women leaders in its efforts. The group is updating how it monitors projects’ impact to go beyond the physical forest and also measure indicators of gender equality and empowerment.

Brazil participates in Initiative 20×20, a country-driven effort to change the dynamics of land degradation in Latin America and the Caribbean. The initiative’s short-term goal is having 20 million hectares under restoration by 2020, and 30 million hectares by 2030 (to be reflected in member countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Climate Agreement). Impact investors and corporations have pledged $2.4 billion so far. These groups are investing in projects in Brazil, and exploring how to expand their portfolios in the country. These efforts, particularly in the Atlantic Forest, provide a strong platform for scaling up investments in landscape restoration.

Brazil’s 2006 Lei da Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest Act) and the 2017 National Restoration Plan were landmark laws that helped reduce deforestation in the ecosystem and foster restoration. There are important subnational policies in place, such as the Reflorestar program in the state of Espirito Santo and the innovative Payment for Ecosystem Services program in the city of Extrema. But Brazil needs to expand these efforts.

It is time for the global restoration movement to pay attention to the Atlantic Forest, and help transform this forest into a restoration hub with economic and ecological benefits. The international community could help local organizations, landowners and farmers scale their restoration efforts, greatly improving the well-being of the Brazilian people, the planet and the climate.

Miguel Calmon is the Forests Director for WRI Brasil.

Mariana Oliveira is a Cities4Forests Brazil Researcher in WRI Brasil’s Forests Program.

Rachel Biderman is the Director of WRI Brasil.